University of Illinois Extension

Early Spring Gardening

Early spring gardening is quite the challenge for most gardeners, gambling that the weather won't be too cold or too wet or both.

Richard Hentschel

"There are some strategies that a gardener can try to come out on top and have a great garden, starting with your earliest plantings," said Hentschel.

"Learning when we can plant is a matter of reading each seed packet or understanding the catalog lingo about days to harvest when we are deciding on what is to be grown. No matter where you garden in Illinois, there can be an early garden planted. In very southern Illinois that could be as soon as the first week in April. That same planting of early vegetables for northern Illinois is more like the first week in May. The difference in growing days from southern Illinois to northern Illinois is typically about 40 days."

Depending on what you want to plant, you do so from seed or transplants. If you would like the additional challenge, try growing those transplants too. Another bit of information you need to know is that mysterious and historical frost free date for the area you live in. Everything is referenced to that date for your first planting. These are very specific dates, yet each year the gardener will have to decide if it is better to postpone the planting a day or several.

Seedling "Very southern Illinois has about 200 frost free days while very northern Illinois only has about 160 days and the rest of Illinois something in-between," he said. "Having and understanding this information allows gardeners to choose vegetables that will be able to germinate, grow and produce before the first freeze kills the plants."

The usual lists of vegetables for the early garden are those that can survive evenings that you can still get a freeze. All those seeds that go in the ground won't know if the air temperatures are below freezing or not. These early spring vegetables prefer to germinate and grow in the cooler temperatures. Potato tubers like the cooler soil temperatures to get started and the tops show up a bit later when the air temps are warmer.

"Some of the earliest vegetables grown from seed are leafy vegetables like kale, leaf lettuces of all kinds and spinach," he said. "Transplants that handle the cold air are broccoli and cabbage.

"Vegetables that like the colder soil to start to grow include asparagus, onion sets, rhubarb and those potatoes. This group of seeds and transplants go in the ground four to six weeks before the average frost free date. "

A gardener can certainly plant those hardy vegetables later, but that delays harvest and if delayed too long, vegetables like cabbage and broccoli can bolt and go to seed before you have a head development since the heads are forming in hotter weather. Leaf lettuces will not be short and stocky, but taller and spindly.

"Two to three weeks after you have planted the very hardy vegetables, along come the frost-tolerant vegetables, those that can survive a frost but not a freeze," Hentschel said. "These vegetables germinate in the cooler soil temperatures that will still be around or the transplants tolerant of the frosts. Beets, carrots, Swiss chard of all colors, radishes and parsnips are good examples for consideration. Transplants that are available by then include herbs, cauliflower and Chinese cabbage."

Seedling Broccoli Planting both very hardy and frost-tolerant vegetables can be a bit of a job as the garden soil is often still too wet to really work as we do for warmer season vegetables. Sometimes it means digging an individual hole for the transplants and using dry soil you set aside just for this purpose or using some bagged potting soil if your ground is just too wet to plant.

A similar strategy can be used for the rows of vegetables you are planting. You can also use sand to cover the smallest of seeds if you feel the soil you have is too heavy.

"For those vegetables like potatoes and asparagus, the plantings have to go in a lot deeper to accommodate tuber development for the potatoes and to establish a permanent planting of asparagus," he said. "But there is nothing like eating your own early potatoes you grew yourself!"